Ah! The monocle! Long associated with old-fashioned British toffs and a stiff upper lip, you may be surprised to learn that there’s much more to the monocle than meets the…well, eye. Today we’ll be peering a little closer through one, vintage lens at how the world looked to 4 famous monocle wearers from British history…
1. Joseph Chamberlin, 1836-1914
One of the City of Birmingham’s most prestigious figures, Joseph Chamberlin was a self-made business man who became and eminent politician and well-respected mayor of Birmingham itself.
Though he never became prime minister, Chamberlin was a key player in many events of the 19th and 20th centuries, becoming Secretary of State for the Colonies before playing a central role in the Second Boer War and the Khaki Election of 1900. According to his contemporary Winston Churchill, Chamberlin was the man who made the weather.
Chamberlin wore a monocle for most of his life until he suffered a debilitating stroke aged 70, after which he switched to the more practical option of spectacles.
2. Percy Toplis (The Monocled Mutineer), 1886 – 1920
Played here in a BBC screen adaptation by Paul McGann, Percy Toplis was not the kind of WWI soldier who was destined to win military medals. Toplis instead was a notorious criminal who often wore a gold monocle as part of a disguise.
After signing up with the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1915 as a stretcher bearer, Toplis deserted in 1918 (shortly after posing as an army captain) and was sentenced to two years in prison. On release, Toplis would habitually take on this disguise (with monocle in tow) when he visited women in town, in the meantime he made money on the black market and through forgery and fraud while serving in the Royal Army Service Corps.
He went AWOL again in April 1920, was charged with the murder of a taxi driver despite successfully evading the law (he is the first man in British history to have been convicted of murder in his absence). To escape he posed as an officer in London for two weeks, ran away to Scotland, had several armed encounters with police while on the run and was finally shot and killed in a police shoot out. His monocle can still be seen at the Penrith Museum.
3. Una Vincenzo (Lady Troubridge), 1887 - 1963
The only female monocle wearer on our list was a colorful character. A famous sculptor and translator in her own right, Lady Troubridge was best known as the lesbian lover of author Marguerite Radclyffe Hall. The two lived together from 1917 until Hall’s death in 1943 and are known to have experimented with seances and spiritualism.
In 1936, Hall took another lover, a Russian nurse called Eva Souline and, despite conflict, the three women eventually all lived together. Following Hall’s death, Lady Troubridge had her late partner’s suits (Hall favored a more masculine style of dress to make a statement about her sexuality a fashion which was unusual at the time) altered and wore them habitually.
4. Chris Eubank, 1966
Boxer Chris Eubank could well be the most eccentric monocle wearer on our list. With middleweight and super-middleweight world titles to his name, Eubank helped to raise the profile of British boxing in the 1990s. Speaking with a lisp, putting on an upper class accent, wearing Saville Row tailored suits, carrying a cane, wearing a top hat and sporting a monocle are certainly not the be all and end all of Eubank’s colourful persona…
Among his many unusual activities, Eubank bought Lordship of the Manor of Brighton and converted a Grade II building he named Buckingham Palace into 69 flats for the homeless (costing him a personal £1,250,000).
In 2003, he was declared bankrupt, owing £1.3 million in taxes. He’s also performed an activist role against the Iraq war. In 2007 he was arrested after driving through central London in a truck emblazoned with the message BLAIR Don’t send our young prince to your catastrophic illegal war, to make it look plausible!”. Clearly, the monocle is the least of this larger-than-life character’s worries.